By JOEY SAMUEL
A year ago, the Philadelphia Union were competing for the top spot in the Eastern Conference in their second season of existence. Now, they find themselves fighting just to remain in the hunt for a playoff spot.
On Sunday, the Union will face the team that holds the fifth and final playoff spot for the second week in a row when they take on D.C. United at RFK Stadium. Last week, the Union faced the Chicago Fire, who at the time held that fifth spot but when the Fire earned a 3-1 road win over Philadelphia they moved up to fourth.
Now D.C. United hold that last spot, sitting 13 points above the Union. Philadelphia have one game in hand on D.C., and they also play two more times this season. The first of those matches is Sunday, and while it's hard not to think about the postseason, Union coach John Hackworth is focused on getting a good result in the nation's capital.
"I'm not not thinking about the playoffs, let's put it that way," Hackworth said in his weekly press conference to reporters. "But we're concentrating on D.C. United and the way that this team needs to be playing. We've done that the last few weeks, but we haven't gotten the results. We have to make sure that we really improve in all ways, we're facing a really difficult challenge in doing down to D.C. and facing a very difficult team in a place where we haven't had a lot of success. It's a big ask, but it's something we have to do."
As the team prepares for the massive clash with their I-95 rivals, a situation has arisen at centerback, where Carlos Valdes and Amobi Okugo have impressed as a duo in recent weeks. But newly signed Bakary Soumare debuted in Sunday's loss to the Fire, and the club is eager to get him into the lineup on a regular basis. But where will he fit in, with Valdes and Okugo playing so well together?
"That's a good question. I don't know that answer entirely," Hackworth said. "We wanted to get Baky a start. But Baky has got to earn it, and be better then the guys in front of him and Valdes and Okugo have been very good.
"If we go with a first-choice team right now, I think Valdes and Amobi are the guys that have been playing the best at centerback right now," Hackworth said. "But the thought also is that Baky will be one of our most important players going forward, and that will proabably mean moving Amobi back into the midfield."
While it may be a problem that Hackworth will need to address eventually, having too many quality centerbacks is a good problem to have. But that's not the only bright spot from what has otherwise been a tough couple weeks for the Union.
The Union's U-17 youth team won the Generation Adidas Cup last week, and leading the team as captain was the club's first-ever homegrown player, Zach Pfeffer. He starred in the playoff round, registering four assists in the last two games. It was an ideal situation for Pfeffer, as he was able to play in games that mattered, even though he hasn't been able to crack the first team recently.
"We have to make sure that Zach gets game experience," Hackworth said. "Whether it's playing with the U-17s, the reserves, or the first team, that's what he needs to grow. He is, to a lot of those guys in the academy, exactly what they want to be. And when he goes back with them and leads them, you couldn't have a more authentic connection with the academy and the first team, and Zach did a great job with that."
With the team earning such poor results recently, Hackworth may be tempted to start thinking about the future and his top youth players like Pfeffer, at some point. But for now, he's focused on earning results and remaining in the hunt for a postseason spot.
"Right now I still want to compete with that idea in mind that if we go down and get three points at D.C. we're right back in it," Hackworth said. "This year it seems like in the Eastern Conference it's a dogfight. But at some point we will have to make a decision, is it about this year, or is it about next year. Right now, it's about this year."